Sacred Hoop Dreams: Basketball in the Work of Sherman Alexie

By Goldstein, David S. | Ethnic Studies Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Sacred Hoop Dreams: Basketball in the Work of Sherman Alexie


Goldstein, David S., Ethnic Studies Review


The game of basketball serves as a fitting metaphor for the conflicts and tensions of life. It involves both cooperation and competition, selflessness and ego. In the hands of a gifted writer like Sherman Alexie, those paradoxes become even deeper and more revealing. In his short story collections, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Toughest Indian in the World, his debut novel, Reservation Blues, and his recent young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie uses basketball to explore the ironies of American Indian reservation life and the tensions between traditional lifeways and contemporary social realities. So central is basketball to the Lone Ranger and Tonto short story collection, in fact, that the paperback edition's cover depicts a salmon - the Coeur d'Alene Indians are fishermen - flying over a basketball hoop.

Communal experience typically trumps individualism in American Indian value systems, experience that often manifests itself in leisure activities of North American Indians. Although most contemporary anthropologists wisely hesitate to generalize across hundreds of American Indian societies, they do report, as do American Indian scholars and storytellers, that the sacredness of life, the balance or harmony of relationships among humans and between humans and nature, and the cultural centrality of stories characterize most Indian groups. Certainly the writings of American Indian authors like Michael Dorris, M. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich return often to such themes.

It is no wonder, then, that such values inform the leisure pursuits of American Indians, at least as interpreted by its artists like Alexie. Indeed, as Daniel McDonald and Leo McAvoy point out, the connection between leisure and other aspects of life are less starkly drawn in most American Indian societies than they are in Euro-American society. This interrelationship between life and leisure manifests itself quite thoroughly in Alexie's work, especially in his treatment of basketball. As just one example, a character named Simon in a story titled, "The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue," jokes that basketball should be their new religion, noting, "A ball bouncing on hardwood sounds like a drum" (147). And in "Saint Junior," a story in The Toughest Indian in the World, the narrator tells us that the protagonist had participated in "many of the general American Indian ceremonies like powwows and basketball tournaments" (183), unironically implying equivalence between the two.

So important is basketball to Alexie's literary cosmos that the narrative voice in his poem, titled, "Why We Play Basketball," apparently speaking on behalf of all Indians, or at least Alexie's own Spokanes, dramatically insists,

It is just a game

we are told by those

who cannot play it

unless it is play.

For us, it is war .... (711)

Although equating sports with war is hardly a new literary gesture, Alexie gives the impression- that the connection for him is literal, not figurative.

Alexie's poem also suggests that basketball helps Indians make sense of their daily lives and their place in the larger world:

In basketball, we

find enough reasons

to believe in God,

or something smaller

than God ....(711)

The narrative voice states that Indians play basketball because "we want to / separate love from / hate, because we know / how to keep score" (712) - the game, like a story, reflects life back to us, giving it meaning. Finally, the voice draws a parallel between the ball and the tribe itself: "These hands hold the ball. / These hands hold the tribe" (712). In one short poem, Alexie thus uses basketball to evoke epic themes of war, God, and peoplehood, themes that also run through his longer works.

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, his National Book Award-winning novel for young adults, Alexie's protagonist, an adolescent Indian nicknamed Junior, literally and figuratively leaves his reservation to attend high school in the nearby white town. …

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